Single dad slays 'personal demons' by earning a degree through Arizona Online

A man wearing a blue graduation gown sits on a concrete bench next to his son, who is wearing a blue graduation cap.

Cameron Green, acting director of Campus Web Services at the University of Arizona, sitting next to his son, Escher, before graduating from Arizona Online in May. Green was chosen to represent Arizona Online's 10,000th graduate.

Standing among thousands of his fellow Wildcats at this year's commencement ceremony, 39-year-old Cameron Green wasn't just celebrating the end of his academic journey. He was reflecting on the years of work and occasional hardship that led him to Arizona Stadium that evening.

"I wasn't pursuing this degree so much from a career aspiration perspective," he said. "It was more about slaying personal demons."

By evening's end, Green officially earned his Bachelor of Science in geographic information systems technology from Arizona Online. It was a moment more than two decades in the making.

Green's higher education career actually began in 2003, when he enrolled at the University on an academic scholarship after graduating from Catalina Foothills High School. He first wanted to study engineering, then switched to studio art before landing on history – all while becoming increasingly involved in extracurricular activities, especially the Tri-Cats triathlon club. 

Though he found something to love in each degree program, Green never discovered his passion and left the University after becoming academically ineligible in his fifth year.

"I was crushed," he said. "I was devastated. It hit my confidence real hard, and I think that carried through the next 10 years of my life. It took me a long time to build up my professional confidence through work."

Green's life was marked by personal crises, as well. He became a single father to his then-17-month-old son, Escher, after the boy's mother passed away. Escher is now 9 years old.

Despite personal and professional struggles, Green regained his confidence and developed a strong resume. He started working for University Information Technology Services as a web analyst in 2017.

"It was really challenging and tough," he said. "With the emotional toll of everything that was going on, it was really hard for me to be very self-motivated. I was looking for a position that can be very stable, and the stability of the University was a major appeal. At that point, I'm the sole breadwinner, the sole provider for a toddler."

Not long after starting his new job, Green learned about Qualified Tuition Reduction and the Second Start Readmission Program. The former provides reduced tuition rates for University employees and qualifying dependents, while the latter allows undergraduate students who did not complete their degree – and have stepped away from school for more than three years – to reenroll without their previous low grades affecting their cumulative GPA. 

Green enrolled in Arizona Online in 2019 and chose to study geographic information systems due to a lifelong love of maps.

"I've always thought maps were fascinating, interesting pieces of art and incredibly informative, dense pathways to share information," he said. "The program sounded really cool, and the things I could learn through GIS are really interesting. It obviously has a very heavy spatial component, but it's also an information system, which I felt would be helpful in my day job. It was all really fun, interesting coursework, which helped keep me motivated."

Wildcats on the web

Arizona Online, the online campus of the University of Arizona, opened its virtual doors in 2015. Students from around the world can complete more than 150 certificate programs and undergraduate and graduate degrees without having to physically attend class on campus. More than 150 programs are offered across multiple areas, ranging from agricultural sciences and English and literature to law, policy and social justice.

"Arizona Online aims to provide the wonderful education available at Arizona's flagship university to any student, anytime, anywhere," said Caleb Simmons, a professor of religious studies, faculty director of the Interdisciplinary Studies program and the executive director of Arizona Online. "We want to help students transcend traditional boundaries of geography, cost and all the other things that might be keeping them from attending the University of Arizona."

Now in its ninth year of operations, Arizona Online has maintained a reputation as one of the nation's top online education providers. In February, the U.S. News & World Report ranked Arizona Online in the top-15 best online bachelor's degree programs, tied for No. 11 out of 399 included programs. The program received its fourth consecutive top-15 finish among the best online bachelor's degree providers, placing it in the top 3% in the country.

When planning his return to college, Green said a "more traditional route" didn't quite fit his lifestyle. As a single dad to a 4-year-old at home, there was just no way he could attend regularly scheduled classes on campus. Arizona Online's asynchronous curriculum allowed him to complete his coursework on his own schedule while still finding time share his passion for cycling with Escher, attend a season of his son's football games and enjoy the little moments of life.

"With Arizona Online, the lectures can be viewed when I need to do it, the reading can be done on my time," Green said. "Life as a single dad, it's not that you won't have a lot of time, it's just unpredictable. I could always find enough time for school, but it wasn't always at the same time. I worked during the evenings, in the morning and on the weekends."

Green said the experience was not without challenges – and he sometimes found himself taking a semester off to deal with big life moments like buying and renovating a house. After a few months off, though, Green would take a look at his transcript and start planning out the next step of his academic journey.

Whether actively in school or thinking about taking another class after a semester off, Green said his family, and academic adviser Shery Crater, assistant director of academic advising in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, were his greatest supporters.

"Shery was definitely a big help," he said. "I talked to her about what I wanted to accomplish, what I needed to do, the classes I needed to take, but also the classes I was interested in taking, and how I could work them into my schedule. She made a lot of good recommendations, and when I took a semester off she was still helpful and supportive. Having my adviser to help was huge. I also received an incredible amount of support from my brother, Chris, through this process. I literally could not have done it without him and his support for both me and Escher."

When Arizona Online saw that it was nearing a milestone – 10,000 graduates from its degree programs – Green was selected to represent the historic occasion.

"I've heard stories from students who made promises to their mothers, when they were younger, to pursue a college degree, but never had the time," Simmons said. "And then, Arizona Online provided them with the opportunity to fulfill that promise. I've seen people in their 70s graduate. Single mothers and fathers who were working full time in their careers. So, when I think of those 10,000 individuals and their families – we've given them access to higher education while still being able to fulfill other life obligations."

Family and the future

As he advanced in his studies, so did Green advance in his professional career. He is now the acting director of Campus Web Services. In his role, Green oversees a team of more than a dozen cross-disciplinary professionals who manage development, maintenance and analytics for the University's main webpage, as well as hundreds of other affiliated sites for colleges and other units across campus. 

Green said his job is "super fun," in part because he works with a team that is "dynamic, caring and motivated." To keep up with the ever-changing world of information technology, Green said he relies on the experience and expertise of his team and works with different units across campus to better understand their web presence and needs.

"Our team cares about the institution and meeting the needs of the various colleges and divisions," he said. "We get really excited about supporting staff and faculty in their programs and working with marketing teams. The work is interesting and dynamic. The University is changing all the time, which means its web presence needs are changing all the time."

After years of studying for school and developing his professional career, Green said he was more than ready to mark the end of his academic journey and celebrate his hard work. Life still had surprises in store for him before Commencement, however, though this time it was good news: Green would share the graduation experience with his younger sister, Cassidy Schmidt, who completed her degree in cyber operations through Arizona Online.

"We didn't even realize the other was graduating until March, when she called and said she was going to come out for her commencement," Green said. "I was like, 'Me too!' So, that was really fun. My mom came out, she lives in Michigan. Some of my family came out. My friends have been really supportive and were excited about closing this chapter of my life."

Green added, "Honestly, it did feel a little awkward being in this sea of 22-year-olds, but I was excited. I was just so happy to be there."

And Escher? "He loved Commencement."

"When the fireworks and light show timed to the dance tracks started, Escher said it was the coolest thing he'd ever seen," Green said. "He had a blast." 

Now that his second five-year journey through college has come to a positive conclusion, Green said he is ready to spend some quality time at home.

"My 9-year-old son probably said it best when he said, 'You shouldn't be doing homework all the time, Dad. You should play video games with your family,'" he said. "I'll probably do a little bit of that."

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